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Data analysis finds pizza restaurants are emitting significant amounts of dangerous particulates – should they be regulated?

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Trendy wood-fired pizza ovens could release the same amount of deadly fine particulate air pollution into Bristol every hour as hundreds of diesel cars driving continuously, an analysis has shown.

Research by the Cable has identified 20 restaurants in the city centre using wood-fired pizza ovens. The figure of all restaurants and commercial establishments using solid fuel, such as charcoal grills and coffee roasters, is likely to be much higher.

When all the restaurants have their wood ovens lit, it could release the same amount of harmful particulate matter into Bristol’s air every hour as 360 new diesel cars driving continuously for the same time, according to calculations based on data from the government’s Air Quality Expert Group (AQEG).

According to a 2017 report into the air quality impacts of biomass by the AQEG, the cleanest and most modern single stove, burning the best wood in laboratory conditions, produces the same amount of particulates every hour as 18 new diesel cars or six new diesel heavy goods vehicles.

Commercial pizza ovens are likely to have a greater burning capacity than home stoves, meaning these figures are likely to be underestimates.

Stuart Phelps, of Residents Against Dirty Energy (RADE) Bristol which campaigns against urban wood burning, said: “This is an unnecessary public health crisis where the victims have no say or redress unless people stop buying wood-burned food.”

The 20 restaurants identified had combined weekly opening hours of 1,332. “Commercial ovens are likely to be on six days a week, 52 weeks of the year. Home fires will only be used during cold spells,” Phelps points out.

Woodsmoke under scrutiny around the world

Wood smoke has come under increasing scrutiny as it produces high volumes of PM2.5, which has been linked with heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and dementia. Due to the microscopic size of PM2.5, its harmful particles can penetrate deep into our bodies once breathed in, affecting all of our organs.

The use of solid fuel burning in commercial premises has recently begun to receive international attention, as awareness of the air pollution crises facing cities around the world grows.

Studies into the impact of pizzarias, bagel houses and other urban, commercial establishments have taken place in Italy, Canada and Brazil. Leaders in Montreal, Canada, are considering a ban on such cooking methods to get air pollution under control.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has called for a ban on wood-fired cooking, provoking outrage from industry. Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees has alluded to lobbying government for powers to take action on wood burning stoves, but did not specify between domestic and commercial usage.

Phelps said: “RADE supports the idea to remove what is a very prehistoric and dangerous form of heating from the air. In terms of whether it should apply to commercial establishments, as well as homes – it should.”

Dr Jo Barnes, senior research fellow at the Air Quality Management Resource Centre at the University of the West of England, explained that PM2.5 is a very fine, microscopic dust that is released in high volumes in wood smoke.

Dr Barnes said: “The concern with particulate matter is that, once these very fine particles get into the bloodstream, the evidence is growing that they impact on all of our organs; from the brain, right through to our reproductive system.”

When asked if people living near restaurants using wood-burning ovens should be concerned for their health, Dr Barnes replied: “Potentially, yes. If the oven is on every day, it could be having an impact.”

Of the 20 restaurants we identified, the vast majority were small, independent business, many of whom were proud to use authentic cooking methods and fresh, local ingredients — not the usual targets in air pollution crackdowns.

But Phelps does not feel that people should be too sympathetic. “Let’s be honest, the reason that a business uses a wood-fired oven is for a commercial advantage," he said. “The neighbours don’t get a choice, especially with such a competitive rental sector in Bristol.

“There are people who have to burn wood, otherwise they freeze. But poverty is the only excuse for burning wood in Bristol.”

Avoiding patronising restaurants using wood fired ovens is part of RADE’s ‘Bristol Pledge’, which has already been backed by three local MPs and MEP Molly Scott Cato.

If you are concerned about air pollution near you, contact Bristol City Council via or 0117 922 2000.

An abridged version of this story appeared in Summer 2019 print edition with the headline “Those delicious wood-fired pizzas are as polluting as tens of thousands of diesel cars”. This headline was based on a previous calculation concerning longer time periods which has since been updated.

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  • Phil Pope says:

    This is slightly disingenuous. The PM standard for new diesels is 25 times lower than the original Euro1 standard in 1993. NEW diesels are required to meet the same PM standard as petrol cars. So why talk about diesel cars in the article? Because everyone knows OLD diesels and ones that cheated the emission tests gave out a lot more PM. So divide your 360 by the number of ovens and compare to old diesel rather than new and you get a headline – each woodfire oven emits less PM than an old diesel engine. Not great if you live next to a restaurant but not as alarming as you make out.

    • Lorna says:

      Hi Phil, the comparison is based on DEFRA research, which specifically looked at Euro 6 diesel engines (linked in article).

  • Ben Woden says:

    “the same amount of deadly fine particulate air pollution into Bristol every hour as hundreds of diesel cars driving continuously”

    What does this mean? I don’t think it makes sense. You’re comparing an absolute amount with a rate. From later in the article, it seems like you mean the rate of emissions from the oven is 360x higher than the limit allowed for the car, but this isn’t clear from this first sentence, which doesn’t really make any sense at all.

    The amount emitted by the oven in one hour will be a quantity, say, 10mg (just for demonstration – I have no idea what the number is), but the amount emitted by a car “running continuously” won’t be an absolute amount like that, because no timeframe is defined – it’ll be something like 10mg/hr (again, totally made up number, but the important bit is the units). You can’t compare 10mg with 10mg/hr.

    Imagine that I said I could run as far as an hour as you can get by running continuously. That doesn’t make any sense. How far can you get “running continuously”? The question doesn’t make sense. Just as in the article, this example is trying to compare an absolute amount of something (distance in my example, rate in the article) with a rate. The two can’t be compared. You can’t say “which is longer, five miles or ten miles per hour?” It’s nonsensical as a question.

    I read on and it turns out that what you mean is probably that the oven emits 360x as fast as the car, or 360x as much in the same amount of time, but you really should change the first paragraph because it’s incredibly confusing, and bringing in “one hour” makes utterly no sense, because it makes it seem like you’re about to say the amount emitted by the ovens in one hour is 360x more than by the car in some amount of time, but then you don’t specify a time for the second point, and it just makes no sense.

  • Matt Pascoe says:

    I for one am glad that the world we live in is currently so peaceful that journalists have nothing more important to comment on than pizza ovens!

  • Deborah says:

    I am a little suspicious of the statistics which seem to support action on woodburning at the expense of reducing traffic. This is not really comparing like with like – woodburning produces higher levels of particulates but the primary issue with diesel is surely the N02 emissions? Happy to be corrected.

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